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First published in 1984, Skeleton Coast was reissued seven times by three of South Africa’s top publishers. This classical book – as it is being referred to in the publishing world – was given a new lease on life in 2011, by the Namibian-based company Venture Publications, in collaboration with Protea Book House in Pretoria, South Africa. Namibian academic, writer, poet and artist, André du Pisani, reviews the book as follows:
S keleton Coast by Amy Schoeman is a wonderfully thoughtful and timely reflection on the importance of conservation and wilderness in helping us become honest, human, modest, courageous and wise. Everyone will learn something of value by reading this book, whether their primary interest lies with conservation or with wilderness.
Amy is a wise photographer of landscape with a love/hate relationship with colour; she understands that a lot of colour can be too much of a good thing. While some photographers, particularly those who shoot in digital and then engage vigorously in post-production work, derive huge enjoyment from the parade of colours in a landscape, this variety of hues can distract the eye and play havoc with the composition. Amy tends to limit her palette, rendering a calmer, more reflective mood through simple compositions containing only a few basic elements. Often her articulation of space takes viewers for a walk through the scene. This is done by guiding the viewer’s eye, using cues such as lines, strong foregrounds and frames.
The great landscape photographer, Ansel Adams, who left humankind with many iconic images, once remarked in an interview with Pat Booth: My last word is that it all depends on what you visualise. Like Adams, Amy Schoeman continued to develop her own personal philosophy of photography. She, too, believes that the true task of the photographer is first to conceptualise, then actually to capture and finally to reproduce as nearly as possible the emotional as well as the objective realities. The scanning of her transparencies and the quality of her prints by Silvertone International based in Johannesburg, South Africa, do justice to this philosophy.
As a landscape photographer, Amy writes: ‘ For the photographer the attraction of the Skeleton Coast lies essentially in its landscape. It is this aspect that is primarily portrayed by the photographs in this book.’ Universally landscape photography has struggled more than other genres to find its own voice. Unable to tear itself away from the literal, it sometimes seems to have little freedom to be subjective or to be used to express a personal vision. To her credit, Amy has transcended this more limited vocabulary widely associated with landscape photography. Her work bristles with creativity and she succeeds admirably in turning scenery into interpretative statements, and hence, she has built a personal style that is stylistically consistent. Many of her photographs capture images that are remarkable in their detail (such as those of mica and granite slabs), while others depict landscapes that are minimal in their content, giving such images a poetic quality, cut back to their essentials.
Originally published in 1984, the last reprint and substantive update of the book under the aegis of Venture Publications, Windhoek, further consolidated the author’s reputation as one of the most sensitive and eminent writers on an ecologically fragile and spiritual corner of Africa. Her description of the arresting beauty of the Skeleton Coast unlocks a rich vault of fascinating material and achieves a celestial quality quite uncommon in print anywhere, while some of the photographs of the breathtaking landscape, all shot in analogue mode, give it an ethereal quality.
The orogeny (Greek oros, a mountain + genesis) of the Skeleton Coast took place over millions of years, and the reader is acutely aware that geology, in the words of Richard Fortey, ‘underlies everything: it founds the landscape, dictates the agriculture; determines the character of villages.’ The reader encounters the sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic rocks of the impressive Ugab formations, the Etendeka lavas, the sacred Brandberg, Messum and Doros craters, and the sedimentary clay ‘castles’ of the Hoarusib Canyon. In an intimate way, Schoeman probes the geological history of the towering mountains and (mostly ephemeral) rivers – the Kunene being the sole perennial river. These rivers are the arteries of the Skeleton Coast. Throughout the narrative, the human heart is accorded a much greater part to play than the more distant human intellect. This makes for a book that, ultimately, is a happy consummation where the heart meets and mediates the technical – and at times – abstract language of science.
Taking the reader on a personal journey into time and into the future, with visitations to the fauna, flora, and river courses augmented by captivating tales of early explorers and more recent, unscrupulous fortune hunters, the book brings to life a rich, if contested, human tapestry that interacts with a desert wilderness beyond compare. Running vein-like through the entire text is a deep commitment to preserve the desert wilderness for future generations.
Appropriately, the book is dedicated to Amy’s late husband, Johannes Louw Schoeman, ‘custodian of the Skeleton Coast Park wilderness area from 1977 to 1993’. Like Amy, Louw was at heart a visionary.
This article was first published in the Flamingo June 2011 issue.
You can purchase your copy of Skeleton Coast at Venture Media Offices, 1 Mozart Street, Windhoek West OR phone Bonn at 061 420 514 or email email@example.com
*Note that there will be no further reprints of this book. Currently Venture Media has 30 copies in stock of the Skeleton Coast Special Edition and 60 copies of Skeleton Coast original.